LIVERPOOL defender Jamie Carragher yesterday defended team-mate Luis Suarez as the Uruguayan become embroiled in yet more controversy, after appearing to deliberately use his hand to control the ball in the build up to his winning goal in a narrow 2-1 FA Cup third-round victory at Mansfield.
Mansfield Town - Green (79)
Liverpool - Sturrdige (7), Suarez (59)
Referee: A Mariner
The Reds booked a fourth-round trip to Oldham in the FA Cup thanks to goals from debutant Daniel Sturridge and Suarez, with Matt Green responding for the Blue Square Bet Premier side late in the second half, but there were suspicions of handball as Suarez appeared to gain a favourable bounce before slotting home in the 59th minute.
Carragher said: “It was at the other end so I didn’t really see, it but it seemed that he just got a deflection and it bounced off him and went in.”
That was certainly not the way the home crowd saw things, and Suarez found his every touch booed thereafter – an experience not unfamiliar for a player who has attracted heavy criticism from opposition managers, players and supporters for much of his Liverpool career.
Mansfield manager Paul Cox, however, was less ready to berate Suarez, admitting if the same thing had happened at the other end of the pitch they would have accepted it.
Asked if he felt Suarez’s actions amounted to cheating or an instinctive reaction, Cox said: “For me to come out and say something like that I think would be quite cheap. If it had gone in the other end and one of our players had done it I think we’d have accepted it. I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt and say it was a reaction. He’s a goalscorer and I think goalscorers put the ball in the net anyway.”
There was little hint that the game would end up a close-run affair when Sturridge, a £12 million buy from Chelsea a few days ago, wasted no time in getting off the mark. The Stags defence was scythed open with ease by a delightful through ball from Jonjo Shelvey, and with Sturridge showing a turn of speed in racing on to the pass, he slotted comfortably beyond Alan Marriott from 12 yards.
The goal allowed the visitors to take control, with Marriott firmly behind a raking low drive from just outside the area from Joe Allen five minutes later that could have deceived as it flashed through a crowded penalty area.
Within 90 seconds it should have been 2-0, and effectively game over, as the Shelvey-Sturridge partnership combined again, with the latter clean through on to another incisive defence-splitting pass.
On this occasion, however, Sturridge dithered perhaps a fraction too long and shimmied once too often as his eventual crack at goal was beaten away by Marriott at close range.
At that stage, with just 15 minutes elapsed, that would likely have knocked the stuffing out of the Stags, however they grew in confidence as the half wore on even if Liverpool continued to dominate.
They were indebted to a superb sliding tackle from Lindon Meikle in thwarting Suso on the edge of the six-yard box, while John Thompson bravely threw his body in the way of a drive from Stewart Downing as he raced into the area.
But with the realisation they were in the game and there was no walkover on the cards, and with the crowd becoming ever more vocal, they finally conjured their first chance just after the half hour.
A quick surging move resulted in leading scorer Green unleashing a fierce 18-yard drive that stung the fingers of goalkeeper Brad Jones, with Jose Reina one of those rested, along with captain Steven Gerrard.
They were amongst eight changes made to the side following the recent 3-0 victory over Sunderland, with Carragher taking over the skipper’s armband.
With Suarez on the bench, Sturridge was given his chance to shine and a minute before the break he again managed to get in behind the home defence from a Shelvey pass, firing in a shot Marriott touched beyond the far post.
Whatever Cox then said to his players during the interval worked a treat as Town gave the Reds the fright of their lives in the opening few minutes of the second half as they besieged their opponent’s area.
It was all sparked by a close-range shot from Anthony Howell that Jones nudged past his right-hand post.
Beyond that, Howell saw another effort blocked by Carragher before Jones saved from Louis Briscoe, made a more fumbled attempt from Meikle, and then tipped one past his left-hand upright as Briscoe aimed a powerful angled drive towards the top corner.
It was hair-raising stuff for Liverpool, who eventually drew breath in the 53rd minute on a breakaway which culminated in Sturridge dragging a Downing pass across Marriott. It proved to be his last act of his debut as Rodgers replaced the 23-year-old and Suso moments later with Suarez and Jordan Henderson.
The Uruguayan’s introduction paid immediate dividends, but not without typical debate for which he has become renowned.
Again Downing was the provider and after Suarez’s initial effort was blocked by Marriott, he then looked to have used his hand to bundle home the rebound from a couple of yards, sparking loud appeals from the Town players that went unrewarded.
The game appeared to be petering out towards the expected conclusion until Green struck 11 minutes from time with a right-foot shot from 15 yards that bounced off the turf and beyond Jones, heralding a frenetic finish.
The most notable chance saw Green lash a shot goalwards from 20 yards in the first of five minutes of injury time, only for Jones to paw away.
In addition to defending Suarez, Carragher also hailed Sturridge’s performance. He said: “It was a great debut with a great goal, you can see he has that bit of pace to get in behind.
“We were playing non-league opposition, so you’d expect that, but we want to see that against Premier League defences.”
Sturridge himself said: “I enjoyed it very much. It was great to get to know my team-mates on the field and it was great to win the game.
“It was a great ball from Shelvey and I just got on the end of it and put it away. We showed a lot of character out there so we’re delighted with the win.”
Despite the controversial nature of the defeat, Cox – who got married last Friday and was hoping to take up an offer from the club to pay for his honeymoon if they had won – took a great deal of satisfaction from his side’s performance – which ultimately came close to earning them a lucrative replay.
“I’m proud of my boys,” he added. “I thought they were a different level second half. I thought we stood off them and let them play in the first half. We’ve done well against one of the best teams. We’ve a lot of positives to take out of it.”